Climate Change

Cutting Emissions May Get Harder With Time

Climate change is altering weather. What if it's also changing us?

Probably the wrong time to talk about a carbon tax.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The most fascinating thing about the Paris talks isn't that the result will be insufficient to avert potentially catastrophic climate change, but that people don't seem more bothered by the languid clip of progress.

"I'm optimistic," President Barack Obama said Monday. "I think we're going to solve it. I think the issue is just going to be the pace and how much damage is done before we are able to fully apply the brakes."

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Perhaps the best justification for that optimism is the hope that cutting emissions will get easier as the consequences of inaction become clearer. "Climate change is challenging because its impacts seem distant -- they do not impinge on our daily lives," Graham Smith, a politics professor at the University of Westminster in London, told me. "If and when they start impinging, the increased salience may be the catalyst for more effective action."      

But what if the reverse is also true? What if more frequent and severe weather events make voters less likely to support policies to reduce emissions? What if the progression of climate change didn't just change the weather, but also changed the way people interact, trust and think about the future?

That environmental shifts can unravel societies isn't a novel observation. The fall of the Maya civilization in Central America, the Chaco Anasazi in what is now New Mexico and the Norse in Greenland can all be traced in part to drought, deforestation or soil erosion. More recently, the civil war in Syria was preceded by a four-year drought more severe than any on record.    

But a growing body of research suggests that natural disasters on a much smaller scale -- the type that will become more common in the U.S. and elsewhere as climate change continues, from hurricanes in the Southeast to floods in the Midwest to wildfires and droughts in the Southwest -- can still have long-lasting social and psychological effects. Most worrisome, those changes erode the very qualities needed to sustain popular support for a more aggressive climate policy.     

The first of those is trust. Most climate policies entail some sort of cost, whether it's taxing fossil fuels, investing more in clean energy or sending tax revenue to reduce emissions overseas. The fundamental challenge for policy makers is getting voters to believe those funds will be used as promised.   

Yet an increase in extreme weather events will probably make it harder to win people's trust. A 2011 study of Honduran villages hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 found that, while levels of trust rose in villages with moderate damage, people in villages that were hit hardest were less trusting than those where the impact wasn't as severe.

"While negative shocks might promote cooperation, too large a shock might actually destroy cooperation," the authors, Marco Castillo of George Mason University and Michael Carter at the University of California at Davis, wrote.   

That loss in trust toward others spills over into the faith people have in their elected leaders, according to Robert Oxoby, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, who pointed to the government's inability to meet expectations before, during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "If I'm a poor person living in New Orleans post-Katrina, and I look at my representatives to Congress or the state legislature, they're not like me," Oxoby told me last month. "That's where I get the distrust of government."

Another obstacle to cutting emissions is getting people to care about environmental shifts whose worst effects will happen in the distant future. As demonstrated by most people's failure to save adequately for their retirement, sacrificing now to increase your living standard decades from now is a hard sell.    

But it gets even harder if you don't expect to be around that long. Kerry Smith, an economics professor with Arizona State University, compared the so-called longevity expectations in Dade County, Florida, before Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and then two years after. He found the hurricane made people who were affected by it significantly less likely to think they would live to the age of 75.

A third requirement for fighting climate change is getting voters to care about people who stand to suffer from it. Yet the consequences of climate change seem likely to make people less concerned, rather than more, about the plight of others. One year after the 2010 earthquake in Chile, Pennsylvania State University's David Fleming and his co-authors found that people from villages that had been heavily damaged showed less  reciprocity -- a willingness to repay good deeds, to meet the expectations of others -- than their peers. 

The tendency to become less generous after a trauma becomes even more pronounced in societies with fault lines -- whether those delineate people by race, income or geography.

"What we know is that, when there's scarcity of any kind, that tends to get people to focus more on their own group," Oxoby said. "It highlights income inequality, it highlights political inequality. That manifests itself in attitudes toward immigrants, toward redistribution, toward welfare programs, toward health care."

Other research backs that up. In a paper published last year, economists tested undergraduate students at the University of California in Berkeley to see how exposure to a recession affected their attitudes, and they found it made participants more selfish. And after the recession started, the share of Americans who said protecting the environment was worth paying higher prices fell to 43 percent from 60 percent.

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A final necessity for cutting emissions is persuading voters to take risks. After all, cutting emissions will require dramatic changes in how we generate and transmit power, the types of vehicles we drive, and even the way our tax systems work. Those changes entail risk -- of disruption, of higher prices, of things not working the way they're supposed to.

Here's the problem for policy makers: Natural disasters appear to make people more risk-averse. In a 2013 paper, Lisa Cameron at Australia's Monash University, along with Manisha Shah at the University of California in Los Angeles, used data from Indonesia to show that people in villages that had suffered a flood or earthquake in the past three years were 41 percent less likely to made a risky decision -- for example, opening a new business or changing jobs.

Individuals who recently experienced a natural disaster perceive the world to be a riskier place. People (inaccurately) update their perception of background risk after experiencing a disaster. They report unrealistically high probabilities that another will occur in the next year and that it will be severe. These perceptions persist for several years.

Of course, if more frequent and severe storms, droughts and other afflictions make voters more worried about the future, it could make it easier for politicians to sell the sort of aggressive measures that now seem unpalatable: a meaningful price on carbon, perhaps, coupled with tariffs on imports from countries that don't participate.

But it's equally plausible that the opposite will happen -- that however hard it is now to persuade people to curb carbon emissions, the inexorable ramifications of a changing climate will make it harder still. Perhaps the negotiators meeting in Paris, and the governments back home watching their progress, should be less sanguine about the odds of improving on their agreement as time goes on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Christopher Flavelle at

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